The curious case of explicit writing instruction

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This weekend, I was honoured to give a talk at the Language, Literacy and Learning Conference organised by the Dyslexia-SPELD Foundation in Perth. Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that the subject of my talk was explicit instruction. Specifically, I discussed evidence that explicit instruction is more equitable than implicit methods (You can find my PowerPoint slides here although they won’t make much sense if you weren’t at the talk).

One point that I really wanted to stress was that explicit instruction has been tested many times and in many different settings. It’s simply not true that it has only been shown to be effective for teaching basic skills. In Project Follow Through, students in the Direct Instruction condition showed greater gains in higher order outcomes such as reading comprehension and mathematical problem solving. Barak Rosenshine makes the case that explicit ‘strategy instruction’ for reading comprehension and writing have also been shown to be highly effective, even if there is some criticism that reading comprehension strategies provide a one-off boost and don’t need to be practised to the extent that they often are.

It is the evidence for explicit writing instruction that I have been thinking about. I have been doing some work with my school’s English teachers, trying to find and filter evidence to support their teaching. So I went along to a session at the Language, Literacy and Learning Conference by Dr Lillian Fawcett. Fawcett works one-on-one with students to improve their written work and the session was about explicitly teaching creative writing. She had a number of scaffolds and suggested that it was important to ask students to do specific tasks rather than simply getting them to write any old thing. For instance, after setting a scene with a prompt and some teacher-student discussion, one of the scaffolds on her handout starts with, “1. Begin with your key character speaking (Make sure you include his/her name and the setting.” The next scaffold reads, “Begin with a prepositional phrase (In front… Behind… All around… Over the… Next to… Under…).

I can imagine some progressive educators feeling uncomfortable about this. They might suggest it stifle’s creativity. I am happy to have that argument because I believe that this kind of explicit teaching broadens the strategies and abilities of students and ultimately leads to them being better able to express themselves creatively.

Fawcett’s approach reminded me of a passage I read in “Explicit Direct Instruction” by Hollingsworth and Ybarra; a book I picked up at the conference. The authors distinguish between ‘talent discovery’ classrooms and ‘talent development’ classrooms:

“In talent development classrooms… we see evidence of instruction in every essay. Students are successfully practicing something they were taught, not just relying on their innate writing ability. Depending on the grade level and genre, we should see sensory details, consistent point of view, use of transition works, and so forth.”

So now to the really curious thing.

Where do you think that writing strategy instruction might feature in the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) toolkit? It doesn’t have its own category and there is no category for explicit instruction. Instead, the evidence for explicit writing instruction is part of the evidence base for, “Meta-cognition and self-regulation.” This category has a single pound-sign icon, four padlocks and delivers eight additional months of progress, or so we are led to believe.

I have remarked before that, “Meta-cognition and self-regulation,” seems to be an extremely broad category of approaches. If you look through the technical report you see that it includes writing interventions alongside critical thinking interventions, philosophy for children, interventions that seem to target executive function, cognitive acceleration based on the old CASE materials, reading comprehension and more. Such a category is incoherent and useless for school leaders. Should they being explicitly teaching writing or messing about with philosophy for children? Assigning a figure of 8 months additional progress to it seems spurious and daft.

Yet rather than reviewing these categories, the folks at the EEF seems quite keen to promote this particular one. I’m not sure why.


8 thoughts on “The curious case of explicit writing instruction

  1. Alex Brown says:

    As an English teacher trying to resource his own explicit curriculum I think there are several issues.

    Firstly, the Australian curriculum is almost absurdly vapid for English. I’ve heard this is due to the contested nature of the subject, but the Objectives, Outcomes and ‘content’ descriptors therein don’t denote anything. They pander to context so greatly that there is barely a referrant left. It would begin to be clearer if simple functions of language like : ‘students learn to use possessive apostrophes’ were included as a start.

    Further, the syllabus is completely divorced from the values of HSC marking (and NAPLAN marking, which is even more distant). Unfortunately, there is more pressure on a school to achieve results in these areas than there is to satisfy registration, particularly when areas like ‘Asia and Engaging with Asia’ and the general capabilities run counter to domain knowledge. This means the syllabus is more of an afterthought to examination preparation, womewhat incredibly.

    I’ve had a lot of success applying the Hochman method and Shaun Allison’s 16 Analytical Sentence Structures. As someone trying to follow Rosenshine, Willingham, Lemov, etc. in transforming my teaching my early returns are coming from modelling sentence structures that are transferable (when the texts change, the nouns change).

  2. Janita says:

    I’m uneasy, but not because I’m a progressive educationist.

    It seems sensible to give children lots of practice in writing different forms of sentence before they embark on an actual task of “creative writing”. But this is a mere quibble beside my main concern. My gut feeling (can’t cite any studies, I’m afraid) is that the best way of laying a foundation for good writing is to take the emphasis off requiring kids to write in the first instance and concentrate on having them read and assimilate the classics. By the classics I mean work by the acknowledged greats, but also the myths, legends, poems, speeches, bible stories and so on that form a kind of collective subconscious of our culture and on which our literature depends. By “assimilate” I mean becoming thoroughly conversant with them and in many cases being able to recite them by heart, first as a chant (when they’re little) and then with expression.

    Let’s take the emphasis off getting them to produce when they don’t really have anything to say and haven’t yet come to grips with what literature is all about.

  3. Janita says:

    I omitted to add that we seem to be obsessed these days with the idea that children should become practitioners, whether of the arts or of the sciences. Some will, but many will not. The important thing is for everyone to learn about the work that’s already been done in these fields — the vast body of knowledge and artistic work that we have all inherited and that enriches all our lives.

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